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And what if we “thought differently” about academic writing?

In large measure, academic writing is two-dimensional and, short of the odd figure here and there, composed almost exclusively of text. Add to that the fact that academic writing is highly formalized – think IMRAD – and what you end up with is hardly any room to maneuver when it comes to creatively sharing the results of our research. What you also end up with are texts that, for the most part are – dare I say it? – extremely boring to read. But what if we thought differently about academic writing? More and more academics are reading journal articles on their tablets and Ipads (some even on their phones!). I think it’s been two years now since I’ve actually printed up a journal article to read. Before long, this will probably be the norm across academia. We might deplore this innovation and long for the printed page, but at the same time, can we not see in this trend an opportunity? A way to better communicate our findings to our readers – in ways that are more evocative, memorable, and… transparent? Technology now allows us to do this, but academic journals (and their readers!) have been slow in incorporating what new technologies make possible.

Recently, I wrote an article on academic writing based on the interviews featured on this blog (see here:  How I Write). In the original version of the accepted article, and with the encouragement of Journal of Management Inquiry editor Nelson Phillips, I attached live hyperlinks to each quote featured in the text so that readers could access (if they wished) the original transcript from which a quote had been extracted, bringing a new level of transparency to my work. Readers could judge for themselves whether a quote was taken out of context, or they could come to their own conclusions about how “accurate” they judged my interpretation of these accounts to be. Of course, offering up my analysis and interpretations in this way put me in a vulnerable position, but it also provided a potentially interesting forum for reflection, debate and deeper thinking about a subject. Think of all the discussion and debate that has taken place in the wake of Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” partly fueled by his rendering the data upon which he based his analysis and arguments openly accessible (see here Piketty – DATA1 and Piketty – DATA2). Such debate is exactly what science is all about, and we need to seek and support ways in which to encourage it. I recognize that for confidentiality purposes, such a high degree of technology-enabled transparency is not always practical nor desirable – but these concerns notwithstanding, can we not make at least some room within our publication outlets for more novel ways of presenting our data?

In looking for ideas in this regard, we can turn (once again!) to what the innovators in new media communication have been experimenting with. In this, I refer to authors and publishers of long-form journalism. Our readers will recall that it was interviews with renowned long-form journalists that sparked the idea for this blog (see here: Project Scrib – About and here: The New New Journalism). And here again, we turn to them for inspiration. What might our work look like if we could let readers not only read about, but also get a feel for – thanks to visuals and sound – the empirical settings we study? What if we could truly “show” and not just “tell” readers about our data?

If you wish to get a sense of what is possible, check this story out: Tunnel Creek. And if you wish to experiment with this form of writing, there are tools available to do so:

Sadly, despite our efforts (mine and Nelson’s), my article was published without the hyperlinks, which I think is unfortunate. Perhaps next time!

Many thanks to Katharina Dittrich, a friend and colleague who is based at the University of Zurich for pointing me in the direction of several of these links.